Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 519:
BENJAMIN BANNEKER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 519.

Today, we meet the black Poor Richard. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Almanacs became popular when printing was invented. The first printed almanac came out right after the Gutenberg Bible. But almanacs had been around since antiquity.

Almanacs did many things. They predicted the weather and the heavens. They were fancy calendars with all the saints' and feast days. They gave bits of common wisdom, pictures, and stories, all decorated with phases of the moon. They were magazines to teach and entertain, all year round.

Ben Franklin's older brother put out an almanac in the early 1700s. When Ben wrote his own almanac, he had to use a pen name. And so Poor Richard's Almanac became the most famous of them all.

After the American Revolution another almanacker appeared. He was Benjamin Banneker, a free black farmer. He'd had some schooling. He'd taken a liking to math and science. But his real education began late in life. When he was 57 a Quaker mill-owner spotted his rare mental talents. He fed Banneker books on math, surveying, and astronomy.

Banneker was 60 when his almanac came out. By then he had the attention of the founding fathers. He'd already served on Washington's commission to lay out the new capital. The Georgetown paper wrote about that. They called him, "an Ethiopian whose abilities [disprove] Mr. Jefferson's [claim that his race is] void of mental endowment."

Jefferson had always sent mixed messages on race and slavery. When he got a copy of Banneker's almanac, he recommended it to the Paris Academy. To Banneker, he naively wrote that the work should allay people's doubts about Africans.

Banneker was a close friend of Benjamin Rush. Rush was a Colonial doctor and writer who'd helped bankroll the Revolution. He'd written against slavery, the death penalty, and alcohol. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

A new round of European wars worried Rush and Banneker. They didn't think war solved anything. Banneker used his almanac to support Rush's plan for a new cabinet post. They wanted a secretary of peace. If we wanted to live in peace, they reasoned, then we had to work at it.

And so we do! I suppose Banneker saw that war is freedom's enemy. And he'd learned something about freedom late in life -- something we all should know. It was that the true gateway to freedom passes through the full use of our unique, God-given mind.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Franklin, J.H., From Slavery to Freedom: a History of Negro Americans. 3rd ed., New York: A.A. Knopf, 19??, pp, 157-159.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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